Owner-pilots get glassy-eyed

Aviation International News » September 2005
October 2, 2006, 8:58 AM

Very light jets (VLJs) may well represent the tsunami on the horizon for the owner-flown turbine market. But with less than a year to go before the first VLJ is scheduled for delivery, the turbine tide, nevertheless, has been rising steadily for at least the past decade-and-a-half. Single-engine turboprops from Pilatus (PC-12), Piper (Meridian), Socata (TBM 700) and even Cessna (with creature-comforts versions of its fixed-gear Caravan) have brought turbine smoothness and reliability to those fliers who prefer the view from the left seat.

Today’s single-pilot jets–primarily the Citation CJ series– nudge owner-pilots into the realm of Mach numbers rather than knots, as long as they are willing to satisfy their insurance companies with comprehensive recurrent training programs. And finally, older-generation turboprop twins– including representatives from the Beech King Air series,  Piper Cheyennes, Cessna Conquests, Turbo Commanders and even the intriguing Mitsubishi MU-2 family–have reached prices that have proved irresistible to certain well heeled pilot enthusiasts.

For example, Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn’s Turbo Commander arrived overhead at this year’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis., flying on the wing of one of the two display examples of his Eclipse 500 VLJ. And the Albuquerque, N.M.-based company’s v-p of operations, Don Taylor, enjoys flying his own MU-2. Both models have been out of production for more than two decades, but, to date, they have provided attractive travel solutions for their respective high-profile owner-pilots.

A large part of the challenge in grasping the owner-flown market is the two-sided view of aircraft operators who are also their pilots. Is this a hobby? Or is it a pure and disciplined form of transportation? The difficulty is that it really is both, and there are no other hobbies or forms of transportation in which the two missions overlap in exactly the same way.

For owner-pilots, flying is not a profession, but their goal is to tap the energy that comes from their enjoyment and enthusiasm to maintain professionalism. At the same time, personal flying in a pressurized airplane, above the weather in the flight levels, can be an efficient and practical way to get around.

There are other extreme hobbies that require similar levels of training, planning and dedication to safety as flying complex airplanes. Technical rock climbing and open-ocean sailing come to mind. But neither of those involves the practical transportation elements found in flying one’s own airplane. Though the owner of an ocean-going yacht might write the vessel off for its role in entertaining, not many executives count on sailboats to get them to important business meetings.

On the other hand, expensive sports cars, classic cars or motorcycles can serve as reasonably dependable transportation, in their own way, but require nowhere near the commitment of time and energy for the owner to maintain acceptable levels of safety in operation. Writing checks is usually enough.

Even the most avid sailor doesn’t face the pressure of get-there-itis, but the owner-pilot might find his passion for flying overlapping a pressing need to complete a trip. And while the professional pilot can spend the day keeping close tabs on developing weather, the businessman pilot has to keep his mind on his corporate mission until it’s time to shake hands, close the laptop and begin the process of preparing to fly. It’s mastering that balance between hobby and transportation that challenges owner- pilots most dramatically, especially when they operate aircraft capable of living in the flight levels.

For those looking at the flying game from the outside, there’s one element that may not be apparent, but dedicated pilots understand that it’s an important one. Early on in learning to fly, students of all ages and stations in life become indoctrinated to the safety culture–sometimes in spite of their egos–whether they like it or not. In short, they learn that if they have an accident, chances are their judgment and/or flying skills will come under intense scrutiny, and, dead or alive, their reputation will probably come up on the short end.

Charter pilot and former instructor Angus Kydd once admonished a group of young student pilots, “Before you try something risky up there, imagine what everyone down here at the airport will say about you when they read the accident report.” For most pilots, the fear of “doing something dumb” ranks right up there with the fear of actually crashing.

Those are some of the perceptual quandaries with which owner pilots must grapple. There are also some much more tangible elements to owning and operating a personal turbine-powered aircraft.

Maintenance

New-aircraft buyers have warranty service to fall back on, but those who are tempted by bargain prices for older airframes need to be aware that a once-expensive airplane can cost a lot to keep up, even if the acquisition cost is low. And when sheet metal, wiring, cables, hoses and other unglamorous components begin to show their age, it can be a challenge to stay on top of the maintenance at any price.

Art Maurice, president of Columbia Aircraft Services, based in Groton, Conn., is well aware of the differences between old and new airplanes. Columbia’s sales division is a Socata TBM 700 dealer and its maintenance arm specializes in the care and feeding of the Piper Cheyenne series turboprops, particularly the flagship 400LS model. All are long out of production.

He once told AIN that some airplane shoppers come to him and say they can buy a lot more airplane for their money if they go “used” and then upgrade the panel, paint and interior, while others swear that “new” with a solid warranty is the only way to go. “I tell them both, ‘You’re right,’” he said.

Maurice also emphasized that buyers of older airframes need to build more “patience” into their schedules–and more flexibility into their maintenance budgets. The expense is one thing, but the time it might take to troubleshoot an intermittent electrical (or other) problem can be an even larger factor.

Then there’s the prospect of locating parts or finding a shop that can overhaul an existing component on a 25-year-old airplane. He said he knows of a handful of owners of older turboprops who are “religious” about their maintenance, accompanying the airplane and looking over the technicians’ shoulders on every 100-hour inspection.

One of Maurice’s customers, John Burton, flies a 1981 Cheyenne III out of Leesburg, Va., on a schedule that includes 200 to 225 hours per year of business and pleasure flying. Columbia services his airplane, and Burton told AIN, “I don’t have a maintenance ‘budget.’ I spend what it takes. My 100-hour inspections might cost $10,000 or $35,000.” Burton recognizes that an older airframe is going to be more expensive to maintain, but said he has seen “no major surprises.”

Dr. Dick Karl has had similar luck with his 1980 Cheyenne I. Chairman of the department of surgery at the University of South Florida at Tampa (Fla.), Karl flies his Cheyenne about 150 hours per year and classifies his flying as “100-percent pleasure.” His first airplane, many years ago, was a Beech Musketeer, and he told AIN, “There have been fewer surprises with the Cheyenne. Most maintenance is so predictable–hot sections, props, starter generators. Turbines are so reliable that most maintenance events don’t have to do with the engines.”

Karl said the Cheyenne, his first turboprop, is built more substantially in just about all areas, from components such as the nacelles, fuel systems and landing gear, right down to the door handles. One of his “maintenance events” involved the annunciator panel shorting out and cost about $4,000. Other than that, he said maintenance over the six years he’s owned the Cheyenne is similar to what he experienced with his last airplane, a Cessna 340 piston twin.

A Citation CJ1 owner-pilot who asked not to be identified because he is an executive for a large company that has its own flight department, told AIN he regards as unique his role as a jet owner operator. “You do all the ground-support chores yourself– fuel, hangar, FBO arrangements, working with the service center–a lot of what a flight department staff would be doing.” He had high praise for the Citation service centers, saying they do an excellent job working with him. He said, “A guy like me can do his real job and not spend too much of the day on service bulletins, maintenance issues and so on.”

Training

Certainly training is one of the areas where owner-pilots of turbine-powered aircraft need to invest the time to remain current, whereas pilots of less-demanding aircraft might be comfortable with recent real-world experience. For all the turbine pilots interviewed for this article, recurrent training simply wasn’t an issue. Their insurance companies mandated annual recurrent sessions with an approved training organization such as FlightSafety International or SimCom.

Interestingly, Burton, Karl and the CJ1 owner all fly their airplanes single-pilot more often than not. Burton said about 80 percent of his flying was solo, consisting mostly of 300- to 500-mile day trips for business with one or two passengers. He does like to fly with another pilot and regularly shares the front office with friends who are ex-military or retired airline pilots. Burton currently has just less than 4,000 hours’ total time and a commercial pilot certificate with multi-engine and instrument ratings.

The CJ1 pilot said his primary concern with flying single-pilot is the prospect of suffering a debilitating medical condition with his family on board. Though relatively young and in good health, he puts that concern ahead of any fears involving lack of training, proficiency or currency. He is familiar with air traffic procedures into and out of his regular operating area, and he demonstrates professional-level familiarity with his airplane’s operating and performance envelope.

Still, he confessed to feeling more comfortable when another pilot is in the right seat. He said, “The airplane is easy enough to fly that I’m confident any light airplane pilot would be able to land it with some help from an experienced CJ pilot on the radio. Everything is pretty easy to find and figure out.”

All the pilots agreed that their status as single-pilot operators definitely made them more conservative about weather, night-flying, complex airspace and go or no-go decisions based on fatigue. Dan Mueller, an ex-Navy pilot, always flies business trips in his own Pilatus PC-12 with a second pilot, though he will fly single-pilot on personal trips. “But I’m much more conservative when it comes to weather, complex air-traffic areas and the amount of rest I’ve had,” he said.

Upgrades and STCs

The more expensive and exotic the airplane, the less that can be done to upgrade it. Other than interior refurbishment and paint, if you want a fancier jet, you tend to buy a new jet. The same cannot necessarily be said for older turboprops, however. For example, over the past 10 years or so, several service centers have touted Dash-10 conversions for Honeywell TPE331-powered airplanes. Owners of Turbo Commanders, MU-2s and Cessna Conquests have marched steadily to the Dash-10 drummer, souping up their rides with the promise of better takeoff, climb and cruise performance while simultaneously enjoying the economic benefits of longer maintenance intervals for overhauls and hot-section inspections.

Now, a similar set of performance enhancements is becoming available for operators of Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-powered aircraft. Some service centers are offering retrofits of the much more muscular PT6A-135 version of the venerable powerplant. Indeed, Raytheon Aircraft announced at the EAA AirVenture show that it is upgrading the engines in its C90 King Air to -135s, an increase of some 250-shp.

As with the TPE331-10 conversions, the PT6A-135s in the renamed King Air 90GT will be derated to the originally certified power level (550 shp) for the airframe, but they will be able to retain that power at higher altitude, providing increased cruise speeds to an estimated 270 knots, compared with 245 knots for the existing C90B.

Raytheon Aircraft president Randy Groom told AIN that upgrading the engines in the C90GT was aimed at competing with the many VLJ candidates on the verge of hitting the market, and the speed increase is designed to sweeten the appeal of the classic big-cabin turboprop. He said, “This is the antithesis of the very light jet in that it’s not ‘very light’ at all, but a rugged proven performer with a large, comfortable cabin and good rough-field and short-field capability. And it has a full-size, private lavatory.” Groom hopes that the increase in speed will close the gap between the King Air and the VLJs for some new-aircraft shoppers.

Maurice, like Groom, is also skeptical about the long-term success for the VLJs, based on cost and practicality. He said, “People who think TBM 700 and PC-12 owners are going to rush out and buy VLJs don’t know what they’re talking about. In a TBM, you’re going 300 knots for $300 an hour. How many are going to pay $800 an hour to go 330 knots?”

Maurice also has issues with VLJ range projections. As an example, he said that VLJs departing from New York and held low by ATC will burn 135 gallons in the first hour and need 100 gallons in reserve. “Is that practical, going from New York to Florida? With no headwind, the actual range is more like 850 nautical miles.”

Asked what he saw as the most desirable upgrade to his Cheyenne I, excepting avionics, Karl said he’d love to bolt on the bigger engines. “Who doesn’t want more power?” he explained. He reckons it would cost about $500,000 to make the switch.

Rubbing his hands together, Maurice told AIN about Columbia’s ability to “build” a Cheyenne for anyone who wants one with the PT6A-135s, fresh paint and interior and an upgraded avionics suite. It’s one way of looking at options in aircraft ownership–a virtually totally rebuilt airplane custom-designed with the latest engines, systems and avionics, but with well known and proven characteristics.

Avionics

If beefier engines are a potent topic for discussion, the subject pales in comparison to what owner-pilots of older turboprop twins and singles face when it comes to decisions about panel upgrades.

The glass revolution is affecting all levels of personal flying, from jet owner-operators to primary students–even kitbuilders, who have a potpourri of non-certified (and correspondingly inexpensive) panel-mounted electronics from which to choose. Even if most manufacturers of non-certified glass panels had no plans to embark on certification programs– the kitbuilt market is fertile enough–the remarkable disparity of pricing cannot but have an effect on certified systems. And most manufacturers of uncertified systems say, in fact, they have certification programs in the works.

The sweeping success of the Garmin G1000 and the Avidyne Entegra systems on the OEM side promises that the instrument student of today–or at least the near future–is most likely to be trained on full-size primary- and multifunction flight displays. (As a sidelight, that begs the question of requalifying those pilots to fly with the traditional “six-pack” display–round dials for attitude, heading, altitude, airspeed, vertical speed and turn coordinator.) But it’s the less well defined retrofit market that concerns owners of existing turboprops.

Jack Shields is the head of the avionics department for Columbia Air Services. He outlined retrofit avionics over the past decade as a sort of integrated-GPS revolution, which began with the Garmin 430/530 configuration, incorporating GPS, VOR/LOC, moving map, com radios and (subsequently) weather, terrain and traffic information in one box and projected on one or two separate displays. For aircraft that did not originally come with a glass panel, a Garmin 430 or 530 also played the role of poor-man’s flight management system. It could also serve as a color display for an existing radar.

When the GX20 large-screen display was added to the mix (when Garmin purchased UPS Avionics–the former IIMorrow), pilots had a situational awareness package that was thought to be as foolproof as could be. Add an electronic HSI to the conventional six-pack in front of the pilot’s face, and navigation had never been easier or more accurate.

There were, however, concerns about data entry procedures and operation of the multifacetedsoftware. Once programmed, the equipment provided can’t-miss guidance for en route navigation and instrument approaches. But some pilots complained that the systems were too difficult to use without inordinate amounts of training time, and they also felt that vital data-entry procedures could be easily forgotten over time, leaving the pilot head-down, puzzling out a problem while bouncing around in clouds at night or in a high-traffic environment.

Jet-like Displays for the Retrofit Market

The original Avidyne Entegra was the first to provide large, jet-like primary flight displays and multifunction displays in piston aircraft. The Garmin G1000 wasn’t far behind, and the two have attacked the OEM market with vigor. At a pre-AirVenture briefing, Avidyne boasted that its systems are standard on 18 different aircraft, from the two-place Symphony SA160 to the Adam A700 and Eclipse 500 VLJs. According to a company spokesman, “The OEMs get the immediacy. The aftermarket is more abstract, but it’s a great opportunity.”

To date, Avidyne has addressed the aftermarket by introducing its FlightMax EX5000 and smaller EX500 multifunction displays. An EXP5000 primary flight display, which is also designed to be retrofittable, is about one year out, said the spokesman. Both multifunction displays are available with XM/MultiLink weather and CMap electronic charts from Jeppesen.

Karl recently had the Avidyne EX500 installed in his Cheyenne I and loves the XM weather capability. For example, he regularly flies to an airport nestled in the mountains of New Hampshire, and he said he’s usually lucky if he can pick up the ATIS broadcast from 50 miles out, too late for a strategic change in plans if the weather is below minimums. “With the XM,” he said, “I can check it every hour on the way up from Florida.”

Garmin has been vague about any plans for retrofit versions of the G1000. In Shields’s view, the company has little interest in the retrofit market, at least as far as its large-screen suite is concerned, preferring to confine its product line to the stack-mounted products with which it has been so successful. Garmin has also been aggressive in the market for portable/handheld navigators, the latest example being its GPSMAP 396 with XM weather capability.

On the retrofit panel-mount front, Shields considers Chelton the “top echelon,” and Columbia recently completed its first installation of a two-tube Chelton system in a TBM 700. He said, “With Class C TAWS, an interfaced [digital] autopilot, highway-in-the-sky and synthetic vision, no brochure can do it justice. You’ve just got to fly this thing to really grasp what an advance it is.”

The latter two features, highway in the sky (HITS) and synthetic vision, are a step beyond even jet cockpits. HITS displays a series of rectangular boxes defining the flight path. The pilot simply flies through the boxes, one after another, to stay on course and at the correct altitude–en route or during an instrument approach.

The synthetic-vision feature enhances the traditional straight-line, blue-over-brown symbology with database-derived 3-D depictions of actual terrain relief, including obstacles. One pilot who has flown the system said that when the demo pilot disabled the feature showing the terrain contours and reverted to simple blue-over-brown, he instantly felt uneasy, as though an important layer of situational awareness had been removed from his intuitive scan.

Shields said that purchase and installation of the Chelton system will set an airplane owner back about $100,000 (“It’s only money,” he whistled), but he compares that to the best available product from the last generation, a two-tube Honeywell Bendix/King EFIS package that cost more than $110,000. But Bendix/King still holds a healthy trump card with its KGP560 Class B TAWS system, which can interface with the company’s IHAS 5000 or 8000 suites. The TAWS option costs about $5,000, making it an attractively priced option for owner-pilots. Similarly, Skywatch HP and TCAD 9900BX standalone traffic-alert systems (from L3 and Ryan, respectively) are also high on many owner-pilots’ wish lists.

Rapid Obsolescence

Today’s aircraft owner faces more than the sting of a six-figure hit on the checkbook. There is also the uncertainty that one’s dream panel might become obsolete more quickly than any such major upgrade has aged in the past. It used to take at least five or 10 years for the leading edge of technology to advance. Now it can happen in a matter of months.

One example is the XM satellite weather phenomenon. A few years ago, enterprising avionics providers were developing complex, expensive links to transmit weather data into the cockpits of top-tier owner-flown airplanes. But bandwidths were narrow and the systems–either uplinked from the ground or downlinked via satellite–were slow and inconsistent.

Now we have XM satellite weather transmitted via a wide-bandwidth format to a tiny antenna with much greater efficiency and at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, systems such as those available from NavAir, of Mount Kisco, N.Y., are available using their own proprietary software playing on off-the-shelf components–an XM radio receiver and a GPS sensor connected to either a laptop computer, a tablet PC, or even a simple personal digital assistant (PDA).

The cost of the entire system is less than $3,000 (around $4,000 for a larger tablet PC format), including all the hardware, the first year’s XM subscription and an electronic flight bag feature using NOAA government approach charts (the first year’s subscription is included in the purchase price; the price is $189 per year after that for the charts).

The system includes a GPS sensor that overlays the aircraft position on the weather and navigation moving map displays. Weather products include metars, TAFs, surface winds, winds aloft, echo tops and more.

Even with wireless Bluetooth connectors, however, NavAir president Amir Tirosh still recommends using ship’s power (via the cigarette lighter) for all three battery-driven components, leading to a grapevine of wiring running around the cockpit. Still, on a flight AIN took earlier this summer, the bird’s nest wasn’t as bad as one might have thought after most of the excess wires were routed far up on the glareshield. And the system made it worth the effort by reliably providing Nexrad weather at five-minute intervals.

For a pilot unaccustomed to any cockpit weather at all, watching a tight red splotch (complete with a lightning-strike symbol) appear 50 miles out front, directly on the course line, was attention-getting. As the cell came into view outside the windshield from about 30 miles away, the image on the PDA screen told the tale of a dying cell with every five-minute update. The lightning symbol disappeared, and the red area began to fade to green. At 20 miles, the view out the windshield revealed an anvil head stretching out downwind of the main cell and the clouds dissipating. We passed about 10 miles to the north, untouched by even mild turbulence.

For those who are skittish about upgrading permanent panel equipment, the NavAir product is an attractive supplement. Garmin has upped the ante with its portable GPSMAP 396, incorporating XM weather (and optional entertainment radio) to accompany the “TAWS-like” terrain warning page found on the previous-generation GPSMAP 296.

The navigator also provides a full suite of navigation features– not including full approach procedures (for liability reasons) but having final-approach-course information for all IFR approaches. The unit is also meant for automotive and marine use; it can even be interfaced with a bass boat’s fish finder–a real fish finder not TCAS.

Speaking of air traffic, the GPSMAP 396 can interface with Garmin’s TIS-enabled transponder to display traffic information. After listening to Garmin’s Dave Brown reeling off the GPS396’s features during a press briefing at EAA AirVenture, one reporter lampooned an infomercial hawker, saying, “…But wait! Don’t order yet. There’s more!”

Expect More, and You’re Likely To Get It

Over the past several years, pilots of non-EFIS-equipped aircraft have seen avionics capabilities take giant leaps onward and upward. Over time, four key situational-awareness elements have found their way onto the table: pilots have come to expect their navigators to provide information on navigation, terrain, weather and traffic.

With the advent of large-screen primary flight displays driven by computerized automatic heading and reference systems (AHRS), pilots of new aircraft have now come to expect a single jet-like display showing attitude, airspeed, altitude, heading, vertical speed and turn coordination. In short, the “six-pack” of instruments requiring a disciplined visual scan and (for those whose IFR skills might not be honed to the sharpest edge) mental gymnastics to interpret is fading into the past along with airway bonfires and the four-course range.

The multifunction displays not only combined the data relating to the four key elements listed above but added screens capable of displaying engine and systems performance information as well.

As impressive as the capabilities are, there is also an expectation that the pilot is proficient at setting up the equipment. Maurice said the Chelton system comes with a two- and-a-half-hour instructional video. One of the strategies owner-pilots must develop is retaining proficiency with their avionics and systems when they might go several weeks between flights, unlike professional pilots, who rarely go a week without a trip. Stick-and-rudder proficiency is rarely the problem. More often, it is retaining the procedures for operating complex avionics systems.

PC-12 owner-pilot Mueller flies often, gets regular recurrent training in his airplane (rather than in a simulator) and keeps another ace up his sleeve. He has audio CDs of his systems information and operating specifications that he plays in his car while commuting. “You’ve got to love this to do it right,” he said.

Finding Safety in Personal Minimums

Cheyenne I owner-pilot Karl takes several factors into account when selecting his own personal minimums. He said, “I’m not uncomfortable with 200 and one, as long as I have enough gas [to go to an alternate] and surrounding terrain isn’t dangerous. I love to see 500 and two. On a long-distance trip when I’m at the end of my fuel reserves, I’m much more conservative.” Karl also takes personal fitness and a good night’s sleep seriously when it comes to flying.

Burton considers instrument currency, from season to season, to be an ongoing priority. He said, “Summer currency means thunderstorms; winter means icing and nasty weather. Low ceilings and visibility affect both seasons. I stay current on approaches, enough to keep sharp. I hand fly all my approaches for that reason.”

Columbia’s Maurice feels particularly tuned into the owner-pilot mindset when it comes to flying safety. He said most of his TBM customers are semi-retired. “They don’t have to be in the office at 10 the next morning. If the weather is bad, they just decide they won’t go.” The unspoken message is that these are people in a position to have others wait for them.

Maurice has a flight-tracking program installed at Columbia with which he keeps tabs on where his customers are going. He said every weekend the screens are full of his customers headed for the Outer Banks of North Carolina; Nantucket Island; or Ocean Reef. But he said their flying is almost universally conservative.

He said, “It sounds corny, but after 9/11 things changed. I think people realized that life is fragile. You check out the chatter on the TBM owners’ Web site and you can get a sense of how safety-minded they are. And there’s another factor. In many cases they understand that all they have to do is scare their wives once, and that’s it for their $2.7 million investment.”

Top Reasons for Flying

Burton said his most memorable experience flying was taking his wife on her first flight in a light airplane to Nantucket in 1986. His worst memory was losing an engine in a piston single over eastern Pennsylvania at night and clipping trees on a hilltop while on glide path and with the runway in sight. He crash landed safely, only to find he had done so in the midst of a gunpowder manufacturing plant.

Karl recalled a memorable month of May this year, in which he not only had his EX500 installed, but much more profoundly attended the wedding of one of his children in New Orleans and visited his first grandchild in Delaware–all with his personal airplane. He said, “I have a brother in Sioux Falls [S.D.] who built a cradle for my grandson; he hand carved it. He brought it to New Orleans for the wedding, and we packed it into the airplane to deliver it a week later when my grandson was born in Delaware.”

Karl also remembered some memorable flights in his first airplane, the Beech Musketeer, from Saint Louis, where he was in medical school, to Kansas City to buy Coors beer.

Asked about his worst flying experience, Karl responded, “Ah, probably some airline flight.”

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